I recently read on the Pacific Anthropology listserv of the passing of Ali Pomponio, an ethnographer of Papua New Guinea. I only met Ali once, at a conference, but she she cut a bella figure and was pretty hard to forget. Intense and energetic, being caught up her in wake was like suddenly finding yourself in a strange mashup of Moonstruck and Growing Up In New Guinea. She told me her student job was selling used cars — something apparently she told everyone since it figures largely in people’s remembrances of her. She was critical of my contribution at that conference, very critical, but also very enthusiastic about its revision and improvement. She managed to be warm, helpful, incredibly picky, and blunt at the same time. Even though my entire encounter with her lasted all of twenty minutes, she became a bit of a role model for me: she had figured out how to be a healthy, contributing member of the academic community in her own unique way, and people like that are always worth learning from.
One thing that struck me about our meeting was that she appeared to think that she was the total master of all things Papua New Guinea and a very important person in our field. This struck me as odd since I’d never heard of her before, or of anything she’d written. So after our meeting I went back and read her ethnography Seagulls Don’t Fly Into The Bush. After that, I understood why she had such a high opinion of her work, because I now shared it with her.
I don’t know why Seagulls Don’t Fly Into The Bush didn’t become one of the classic ethnographies of the early nineties. Maybe because it was marketed as a teaching ethnography? I mean sure, it has problems: there could be more sign-posting and it has a “you only get it if you already got it” title. But overall the book is superb: it’s clearly and engagingly written, and deals with classic early-nineties concerns with the continuity of tradition as it changes and how modernization/globalization impacts peripheral people. But it also sinks its teeth deep into myth — you can’t get more anthropological then that. And of course the setting, a small island off the coast of New Guinea, is real wind in the palm trees stuff. The book really has it all: tradition and modernity, well-written and not too long. People on this blog often complain that there are no accessible ethnographies, or ask people to list their favorite ones. Well, this one should definitely be on anyone’s list.
Seagulls Don’t Fly Into The Bush costs money to get hold of, but her edited volume Children of Kilibob: Creation, Cosmos, and Culture in Northeastern New Guinea is available open access from Pacific Studies, where it was published as a special issue. Her article in that collection, iirc, eventually became a chapter in her book.
Another common refrain we get on this blog is that anthropology is not ‘making progress’, something we hear about as often as the refrain “should we as a discipline be trying to make progress?” But Ali’s special issue, and the work of many other Melanesianists, demonstrates that we clearly are moving forward in our understanding. Here is a collection of scholars, all working in the same region, who have worked together to put together a synthetic regional picture of a mythic complex that has diffused widely across northern New Guinea. It’s a testament to the strength of our fieldwork tradition and collegiality in PNG studies, and a testament to Ali herself, who was an important part of that tradition.